Migrants, refugees, dead babies and 'virtue signalling': WWJD?

This is a guest post by the Rev’d Stephen Heard – Assistant Priest at St Mark’s Church, Enfield. He is a former civil servant with a background in political and media relations, and was Parliamentary Chaplain to the Bishop of London 2007-2013. He tweets at @seheard and is author of the Unheard Melodies blog.

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I’ve tended to regard the modern-ish Christian meme ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ (WWJD) as rather facile. First, it is highly problematic to lift some moral issue out of the 21st century and plonk it down in the first, without grappling with difficulties flowing from the vastly differing cultural mores between Jesus’s time and place and ours. Secondly, it is characteristic of the Jesus revealed by the Gospels to respond unpredictably, not to say cleverly (in a political sense), to the procession of sticky moral and religious dilemmas presented to him. His radicalism and nonconformity in these contexts is what drew (and continues to draw) others to him, revealing to them something unexpected about the nature of the living God. And yet, as a shorthand way of putting an issue into a Gospel context, WWJD has its place: encouraging us to think theologically, to see the world and its people through Christ’s eyes, and to love as he loves us.

WWJD has clearly been asked by many Christians in these last weeks with regard to the so-called “migrant crisis”, brought into sharp focus by scenes in Kos, Budapest and Calais, and very recently by the picture of a dead child on a Turkish beach. And many of those who have asked the question are very clear about what Jesus would do. He calls us to welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked and feed the hungry. How difficult can the answer be? We must offer sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and danger, and feel shame when we detect the slightest resistance to that response on the part of those who hold the keys to our little kingdom. We are trying, against considerable odds, to be good people, and object to being made to look ungenerous when others (ie Germany) appear to able to respond so much more open-heartedly. I share that discomfort.

The passion this has aroused is genuine, but it is also very recent. It erupted when that picture of the body of poor little Aylan Kurdi, lapped by the waves of an alien shore, was flashed around the world. You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by it. And that movement of the heart, on a mass scale, has awakened the conscience of those who had hitherto been unmoved or unaware, and looks as though it has changed UK government policy. Yet it is an odd and slightly worrying phenomenon. Aylan Kurdi is not the first child to die as a result of what is happening in Syria. Many such have died in the past year, in equally tragic and heartrending circumstances, apparently without troubling us unduly. Christians and others – men, women and children – have been persecuted, tortured and crudely, brutally executed in the region which little Aylan once called home; and yet our outrage has apparently been kept in check. Even the Church’s response has been somehow muted.

I see all manner of things at work here: the Neville Chamberlain factor (“a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”), political opportunism, the crass and frequently nauseating self-righteousness of the media, and what I would call the Diana factor – the occasional need for an expression of collective grief or outrage by a people not usually noted for public displays of emotion. But I sense that, allied to this, is a good deal of what is now called “virtue signalling”: we need not just to feel we hold the correct attitudes, but to show that we do. We need to show that we are human, that we do have hearts, that we do care about the fate of those whose lives do not impinge directly on our own. We need, occasionally at least, to feel and to show that we are moral beings. Empowered by the Gospel we proclaim, we Christians are traditionally quite good at this.

If one side of this coin depicts the hand-on-heart of moral righteousness, the obverse shows the finger of blame. Who made this salty soup? The appalling Assad? The ruthless and mercenary people-traffickers (who were actually, directly responsible for Aylan’s death)? The Turks, Greeks, Hungarians or Germans? The EU and its suddenly less-popular-than-previously Schengen Agreement? The West’s failure of nerve with regard to tackling foreign despots? Or the UK government, which hesitated before agreeing to take additional refugees? Blame-wise, you can take your pick, or call down a plague on all their houses. But now that we have rediscovered our moral courage, let’s see if we can maintain it. I don’t know for sure, but I think that’s what Jesus would do.